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The Naked Truth? Media and Politics in the Digital Age

I gave the inaugural ‘Challenge Your Mind’ lecture at the University of Canberra today, speaking on the topic of the media and politics.

The Naked Truth? Media and Politics in the Digital Age*

Andrew Leigh MP
Federal Member for Fraser
www.andrewleigh.com

‘Challenge Your Mind’ University of Canberra Public Lecture Series
1 August 2012

The Truth, Naked

At the end of 1992, a team of us got together at Sydney University to run for the student newspaper, Honi Soit. We needed a name with a hint of journalistic credibility and a bucketload of electoral appeal, and so we opted to call ourselves ‘The Naked Truth’.

We threw ourselves into the campaign with the kind of frisky eagerness only a dozen 20 year-olds can muster. By day we sang our campaign song to bemused classes, removing much of our clothing to reinforce the team name. By night we put up posters and chalked ‘The Naked Truth’ around the campus. One of our team, Verity Firth, even brought along her younger brother Charles to help out. A class of medical students promised to vote for us en bloc if a member of the Naked Truth team would streak through their lecture hall. One of us obliged.

And so my year as a journalist began. I interviewed Andrew Denton, Henri Szeps and Dorothy McRae-McMahon, went inside Long Bay jail and a submarine, spoke to a magician, a monk and a basketball commentator, and wrote about child sponsorship, biblical literalism and virtual reality machines. In a display of youthful chutzpah, I also reviewed a handful of sports cars, making me (I hope) the only motoring writer in the history of student journalism. When the 1993 election came around, I managed to get Keating and Hewson to answer twenty questions apiece.[1] The year even got me my first article in the Sydney Morning Herald, on illegal street racing.

I loved journalism, but even at the level of student journalism I found it hard. Pitching stories. Separating beef from bulldust. Staying objective. Since writing for Honi, I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words in newspapers: all of them opinion.

Because of that, I approach the topic of journalism with a modicum of trepidation. Plus, because I’m a politician, you should probably regard my views on journalists as akin to the views that a kangaroo has about gun ownership.

The New Economics of Journalism

The first thing to say is that journalism really can change the world. Emile Zola’s letter ‘J’Accuse’ did more than win the freedom of Alfred Dreyfus; it changed the political character of modern France.[2] In their reporting of Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein brought down a President. In Australia, reporting by the Courier Mail and the Four Corners program ended the Bjelke-Petersen Government and led to the jailing of three ministers.[3] In 2005, a newspaper article brought down NSW Opposition Leader John Brogden, and probably changed the outcome of the 2007 NSW election.[4]

Journalists make wonderful company. Not many people are great listeners and splendid raconteurs – but my journalist friends all meet that description. As a reader, I delight in the wit of Annabel Crabb, the global view of Peter Hartcher, the economic nous of Peter Martin, the eccentric curiosity of the late Peter Veness, and the forensic reporting of Neil Chenoweth. Watching Emma Alberici grill Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov about his nation’s disgraceful position on Syria made me proud of our public broadcaster. I could add dozens of other examples, but I’ll sum it up with this: I’d happily put Australia’s best journalists up against any in the world.

For the most part, my argument today will not be about individuals. Sure, I wish there were more great journalists and fewer crummy ones, and I’m sure they’d say the same about my profession. But there isn’t much point in politicians and journalists engaging in a name-calling exercise. Right now, the share of the Australian population that rates either profession as highly ethical and honest has fallen to one in ten.[5] So we need to start thinking systematically.

As an economist, that’s my natural inclination. Human agency can be important, but pivotal changes are generally the result of technology and policy, not individual actions. People respond to incentives – so if you want better behaviour, improving the incentives generally works better than moral exhortation.

The big technological shift in media has been the falling cost of disseminating ideas. Cable and digital television have expanded the number of channels. Digital radio will have the same effect on that medium. Ubiquitous broadband has allowed news to be conveyed through a host of electronic media. Among Australian adults who are online, almost all use social media, with 76 percent using Facebook, and 10 percent using Twitter.[6] About half of all Australian politicians tweet.[7] After undertaking a month-long randomised trial at the start of the year, I joined them.[8]

The effect of this has been increased competition in the media market. By international standards, the Australian media – particularly our newspapers – are not especially competitive.[9] So competition from new outlets has come as a particular shock to incumbent players in the Australian media market.

One of the main places you see the impact of competition is the contest between outlets to be first with the story.[10] Under the old model, papers told you the latest news as of 12 hours earlier, while the evening television news told you what had happened during the day. But competition from online news outlets and 24-hour news channels has made that increasingly unsustainable. Increasingly, people are choosing faster-paced media. Asked their most important sources of news information, 31 percent nominated commercial TV, 30 percent said the internet, and 13 percent said a daily newspaper.[11]

As Tony Blair has pointed out, his 1997 election campaign took an issue a day, while his 2005 campaign ‘had to have one for the morning, another for the afternoon and by the evening the agenda had already moved on’.[12] In the 1980s, Treasurer Keating would go on the road to sell the budget for a full month. In the 1990s, Treasurer Costello would take a fortnight for his budget tour. But by the time Costello left office, the budget roadshow had shrunk to about a week. This wasn’t anyone’s fault – it’s simply a function of the national attention span.

Information Inequality

My central thesis in this speech is that the technological changes in media have led to greater inequality in political information than ever before. For engaged citizens, there’s never been a better time to be a news consumer. You can watch press conferences live on Sky, and get transcripts of radio programs in different cities. You can access the opinions of thoughtful bloggers and sassy tweeters. Engaged citizens are better informed now about political news than they’ve ever been before.

And then there’s the remainder of the population: some who are too busy with family and community to bother with national politics; others who are more interested in Lara Bingle than Laurie Oakes; and those who don’t seek out political information, but let it come to them. For this group of disengaged citizens, there is a growing disconnect from the political process. For example, at the last election, 6.8 percent of voters failed to cast a ballot, and 5.5 percent voted informal. That’s over 12 percent of the electorate who didn’t participate in the democratic process. I believe that changes in the media are one of the factors making this group of Australians more disconnected from politics. In effect, technology has widened the information gap between the most-informed and least-informed members of society.

The notion that technology can have different impacts across society is a familiar one to economists. We use the term ‘skill-biased technological change’ to capture the idea that some technological innovations both help high-skilled workers and hurt low-skilled workers. For example, while computerisation was making lawyers more efficient, it was making their typists redundant.

The thing about skill-biased technological change is that if you’re among the group that benefits, you can easily miss the negative side. And my guess is that many of you in this room will be engaged news consumers, who most keenly feel the upside – the wealth of new information now at your fingertips. But it’s important to also take account of the impact across society if we’re to get a full picture of how the media has changed people’s views of politics.

From the perspective of the most engaged citizens, the media is more abundant, diverse and accessible than in the past. Yet that’s not how things look to many Australians. Taken as a whole, the media has become more opinionated, nastier and shallower. The shift has not taken place because individual journalists have grown horns and forked tongues, but because the technological changes have privileged those kinds of voices. Opinion, nastiness and shallowness have always been there – but they have flourished over recent decades.

Problem 1: Too Much Opinion

Let’s start with opinion.[13] Most of the new political news websites that have emerged over recent decades are dominated by comment. These include The Drum, The Punch, The Conversation, Crikey, Inside Story, The National Times, Australian Policy Online and Online Opinion. In fact, the only political news website that has not increased the overall opinion/news ratio is The Global Mail (which generally does not print opinion pieces).[14] On television, stations such as Sky and ABC24 thrive on commentary. In some cases, guests on these shows are print journalists, who may sometimes do multiple interviews in a day, as well as writing for the web and print editions of their newspaper.

As former press secretary Lachlan Harris has argued, ‘every year the number of journalists goes down and the number of commentators goes up.’[15] In 1990, the Parliamentary Press Gallery had 252 journalists working in television, print and radio. In 2010 that had decreased to 179.[16] One factor is simple economics: journalism costs money and comment is often free.[17] And as comment proliferates, there is a temptation to blur the boundaries between news and opinion – to take the small but significant step from arguing that a policy could be implemented to arguing that it should be; to make oneself a ‘player’ not merely an impartial watcher from the sidelines.

In a world where economic policy gets steadily more complex, and Australia’s future is close-knit with the Asian region, I worry when I see journalistic resources diverted from making sense of policies and events to commentating on the events of the front page. We seem to have devalued good reporting. Recently, Yale University journalism students were asked how they would have gone about investigating Watergate. To the shock of their guest speaker (Bob Woodward), most students essentially said that they would Google ‘Nixon’s secret fund’.[18]

In Australia, I must have read a hundred comment pieces about the politics of asylum seekers, but I don’t recall a single journalist having asked the Malaysian government why they’ve chosen not to sign the Refugee Convention. Rather than endless speculation on the relationship between opinion polls and interest rates, wouldn’t it be worth exploring what an interest rate cut is likely to do to the price of an imported television? Again, this comes down to information inequality. The engaged news consumers see opinion as merely adding to the smorgasboard; but disengaged news consumers are increasingly finding themselves getting fewer facts and more commentary.

Perhaps my view of this is somewhat shaped by an email that a senior opinion writer sent me a couple of years ago. Allow me to quote a few lines:

‘I am prepared to spend my last dollar and effort of energy to avoid having you purporting to represent my views in parliament. And that is quite apart from the fact that you are a crap statistician. … You are a fucking disgrace – the more so because your electorate has a higher standard than you – and I will not lose a moment saying so, in any audience, in any place, and to everyone who asks my opinion.’

In case you’re wondering, I had emailed the journalist to say that since the two of us had never spoken, perhaps we should have lunch together.

My concern about comment is not mostly about ideological bias. Sure, the ALP isn’t exactly having a dream run in the mainstream press at present, but I know enough history to recognise that the worm turns. Curtin won his 1943 landslide election with Packer and Murdoch against him. In the early-1980s, Hawke was backed by most of the mainstream media. In 2003, Howard Government minister Richard Alston made 68 official complaints against the ABC for allegedly being biased against them in reporting the Iraq War. My own systematic study of media bias (co-authored with University of Toronto professor Joshua Gans) found that during the period 1996 to 2004, most outlets adopted centrist positions.[19]

My chief concern about the rise of opinion is the risk that it leads to an increasingly polarised electorate.[20] In one experiment, Stanford’s Geoffrey Cohen asked students to rate a hypothetical social welfare program. The article described the program, and said whether Republican or Democratic leaders supported it. Cohen found that what mattered were the party leaders’ views, not the policy itself. ‘If their party endorsed it, [Democrats] supported even a harsh welfare program and [Republicans] supported even a lavish one.’ As New York University’s Jonathan Haidt puts it, ‘once group loyalties are engaged, you can’t change people’s minds by utterly refuting their arguments’.[21] My fear is that the rise of opinion threatens the information commons, and threatens to split people into increasingly extreme echo chambers. In one US survey, 77 percent of respondents said the press tended to favour one side, up from 53 percent in 1985. [22] I find the rise of MSNBC as worrying as the advent of Fox News.[23]

Problem 2: Nastiness

The second trend that concerns me is nastiness. In her address to the Sydney Institute last year, Annabel Crabb argued that ‘there is a hostile, scratchy feel to politics at the moment’.[24] In the latest Quarterly Essay, Laura Tingle contends that ‘Australia’s politics and our public discourse have become noticeably angrier’.[25]

Now there have always been people saying ungenerous things about politicians. And very often, those people are politicians themselves. Bob Hawke famously refused to withdraw the claim in Parliament that Malcolm Fraser was a liar. Paul Keating popularised not only ‘J curve’ and ‘Banana Republic’, but also ‘grub’ and ‘scumbag’.[26] Mark Latham was so proud of his insults that he used one of them as the title of his book of quotations: A Conga Line of Suckholes. Barry Cohen’s books of anecdotes are replete with examples of parliamentarians calling one another drunks, fools, and philanderers. In other countries, the history is worse still. Any discussion about the character of US political debate today needs to bear in mind that this is the nation where a former Treasury Secretary once shot and killed the sitting Vice-President in a duel.[27]

But there are two features of the technological shift in the mass media today that have accentuated the nastiness in political reporting: competition from online outlets, and anonymity.

The impact of competition from online outlets is to reduce the time that outlets have to carry out their fact-checking process. When tabloid papers published on their front page fake nude photos of Pauline Hanson, their haste was partly due to a concern that if they didn’t rush to print, they would be scooped by an online site.

Competition from online outlets can encourage outlets to exaggerate. One of my favourite tabloid headlines of recent times is this one from July 2011: ‘Workers struggling with a carbon tax are about to be hit with a second wave of Greens-inspired tax pain’. Not only was the carbon price nearly a year away, but federal and state governments had ruled out imposing congestion pricing. Yet when deadlines are tight and competition is fierce, you can see how people end up cutting corners. Other oft-repeated errors include the claim that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s reaction to the death of an Australian soldier was ‘shit happens’ (he was in fact summarising another soldier’s view), or that Australia has an ‘economy wide’ carbon price (it covers about 60 percent of domestic emissions).[28]

Another way that technology can accentuate nastiness is through anonymity. Increasingly, letters to the editor are being replaced by website comments, blogs and tweets. While letters carried the author’s name, social media is often anonymous or pseudonymous.

In Disconnected, I noted the evidence on how anonymous technologies can turn interactions nasty.[29] In one psychology experiment, students at the University of Texas in Austin were placed in separate booths, assigned a pair and asked to exchange emails to get to know each other better.[30] In many cases, the conversations quickly became either lewd or rude. As the researchers noted at the end of their article:

[T]he male experimenter who conducted the sessions debriefed the participants immediately after the interactions without reading the actual transcripts. He noted that the students were always low-keyed, unassuming, and moderately interested in the study. No participants appeared embarrassed, shocked, or in the slightest way, upset or angry. At the conclusion of the project, when he was given the opportunity to read the transcripts, he was astounded—even overwhelmed—to learn what these polite students had been saying to one another.

If you have ever said something more vitriolic over email or social media than you would have been willing to say in person, you know how this can happen.

Even text messages provide a shield behind which poisoned darts can be hurled. In The Australian Moment, George Megalogenis describes how 2GB’s Alan Jones read out text messages before the Cronulla riots, such as this one ‘This Sunday, every Aussie in the Shire get down to North Cronulla to support Leb- and Wog-bashing day.’ As Megalogenis argues, ‘The commonsense filters that were used to keep the letters-to-the-editor page civil, and to prevent the cranks from getting on air, don’t apply in cyberspace because the medium rewards those who generate the most outrage.’[31]

The problem, as Tony Blair noted in a wide-ranging speech on the media, is that ‘Something that is interesting is less powerful than something that makes you angry or shocked. … attacking motive is far more potent than attacking judgment. It is not enough for someone to make an error. It has to be venal. Conspiratorial.’[32] One academic study found that individuals are more likely to be persuaded by political arguments that play on their fears even when they are told counter arguments.[33] Again, this is a matter of information inequality. If genteel discussion is your thing, you now have instant access to Productivity Commission reports and new sites like The Conversation. But for more disengaged news consumers, public debate has become noticeably scratchier.

Problem 3: Shallowness

My third concern is that new media technologies are driving towards a shallower national conversation than in the past. One manifestation of this is the rise of ‘showman politicians’ (and yes, I do mean showman), who are known more for their exaggerations and snappy grabs than their thoughtfulness. Waiting one day to speak to reporters on the doors outside Parliament House, it occurred to me that the 24/7 media cycle has the same effect on the political system as if we offered a cash prize for the parliamentarian who could come up with the most outrageous line of the day.

Another aspect of shallowness is the emphasis on ‘gotcha’ questions, like ‘will you rule out…?’, ‘will it increase…?’, ‘do you promise never to…?’. In one of my first media appearances after being elected, I was asked whether I would stand up for every public sector job in Canberra. I replied that it would be silly to do so, given that some public servants are dismissed for cause. A newspaper article the next day omitted the qualifier, simply quoting me as saying ‘I’m not going to stand up and fight for every public service job in Canberra’. It was a useful lesson about where straight-talk can lead. In the US, gotcha journalism has reached such a stage that spokespeople for both the Obama and Romney Presidential campaigns routinely speak to media outlets only on the condition that they have the right to subsequently edit their quotes.[34]

And yet the most interesting policy questions are rarely about whether something will go up or down, but the size of that increase. Chances are you’re less interested in whether you’re getting a pay rise this year than how big it will be. You don’t want to know whether this speech will ever finish – you want to know when. Deep reporting focuses on magnitudes. Shallow reporting focuses on whether something is positive or negative.

Shallowness can also manifest in picking examples that aren’t representative of the broader context. The current inflation rate of 1.2 percent is the lowest in over a decade. But you can always run a ‘cost of living’ story by finding items or households for whom costs are increasing rapidly.[35] Similarly, the current unemployment rate of 5.2 percent is low compared with recent decades. But a journalist who wants to write about job losses will have little difficulty finding examples. On the average working hour of the average working day, about 1530 Australians lose their jobs, and 1550 find a new one.[36] In discussing school funding, the core question of principle (‘what’s the best way to improve student performance?’) risks becoming sidelined by trite jibes about ‘hit lists’.

Another feature of political journalism that has become increasingly ubiquitous is a focus on the ‘horse-race’ element of politics through the lens of opinion polls. As technology has reduced the cost of carrying out opinion polls, their frequency has increased from quarterly to monthly to (in some cases) fortnightly. The trend could easily continue: in the United States, Gallup now conduct daily opinion polls. A typical poll-watching story tells the reader how the poll has changed since it was last taken, and then discusses how the events of the previous weeks can explain this result. Increasingly, polls are becoming the lens through which many journalists view politics.

The problem is that polls are notoriously inaccurate. In an analysis of election-eve opinion polls from 1993 to 2010, Murray Goot found that across three major pollsters (Newspoll, Morgan and Nielsen), the average prediction error ranged from 1.4 to 2.0 percentage points, with a median error of 1.8 percentage points. Goot noted that ‘if in 1993 an enterprising rogue had set up a pseudo-poll that conducted no interviews but simply worked on the assumption that at every election Labor would get 50 per cent of the two-party preferred vote, he or she would have … an average error of just 1.8 percentage points’.[37] Unsurprisingly, polls conducted earlier than election eve have larger errors.[38]

Statistical analysis of volatility in opinion polls also suggests that polls suffer from sampling problems that magnify the true margin of error – perhaps by a factor of two.[39] Journalists who report small movements in opinion polls (eg. 1 or 2 percentage points) without acknowledging the margin of error may well be misleading their readers.[40]

Superficiality isn’t something that’s emerged in the last decade or so.[41] But it does pose a particular challenge for reforms that are non-intuitive. The arguments in favour of free trade, foreign investment, a floating dollar, a goods and services tax and a price on carbon are all more subtle than the arguments against them. Lindsay Tanner calls this the ‘sideshow syndrome’, and argues that it poses a ‘direct threat to the nation’s well-being’ – constraining our ability to discuss major reforms.[42] For politicians, the technological changes in the media have made reflection, doubt and subtlety more difficult than in the past.[43]

A major driver of the shift towards shallowness is the rise of television and the decline of newspapers. Television news bulletins tend to provide less depth than newspaper reports. In 1970, there were more daily newspapers bought each day than there were televisions in the country. Now, there are four televisions for every newspaper purchased.[44] The internet didn’t kill newspapers (their circulation was declining by the 1980s), but the shift of advertising to the web has dealt a brutal blow to the economics of newspapers. For the most engaged, the conversation may have become deeper and richer; but for disengaged citizens, the trend has been in the opposite direction.

Solutions

So what should we do about it? From the perspective of regulation, the Finkelstein Report (which the government is currently considering) makes the point that when technology changes, legal regimes need to adapt. Take smh.com.au and ninemsn.com.au, two of the most popular news websites. Right now, content on the Sydney Morning Herald website is largely created by a newspaper, which operates under a voluntary code of conduct, regulated by the Australian Press Council. By contrast, content on the NineMSN website is largely created by a broadcaster, with complaints directed to the Australian Communications and Media Authority, a statutory authority. ACMA may consider the ‘suitability’ of a person who seeks to hold a broadcasting licence. A newspaper proprietor is not subject to such a test. If we were starting from scratch today, it’s far more likely that we would have created something like Finkelstein’s proposed ‘News Media Council’ than the current regime.

But complaints-handling bodies are only part of the challenge. In my view, a more significant problem is sustaining the economics of quality journalism. Financial pressures at Fairfax will only accentuate the problems that I’ve spoken about, and will make it more difficult to sustain innovations such as investigative journalism, a readers’ editor, [45] or high-quality pattern journalism that puts a story into its proper context.[46] Google’s Hal Varian is right when he urges newspapers to ‘experiment, experiment, experiment’ – but when newspaper sales have been trending downwards for a generation, it’s hard to imagine experiments that will bend the curve back upwards.[47]

For university journalism schools, I think the current environment presents a unique opportunity. As well as training the next generation of media professionals, I’d like to see more public interest journalism produced out of university journalism schools. While some of this occurs already, there is considerable scope for it to be expanded.

Another proposal, put forward by both Lindsay Tanner and Malcolm Turnbull, is to provide subsidies to quality newspapers.[48] Tanner proposes direct grants, while Turnbull suggests providing tax-deductible gift recipient status to newspapers that subscribe to ‘a code of conduct analogous perhaps to that subscribed to by the ABC’.[49] Naturally, such a proposal would need to pass a reasonable cost-benefit test, but I am inclined to think that the benefit of a better-informed public would be likely to justify the cost of the subsidy. In implementing such a proposal, it would be important to think about how to ensure that public money increased the amount of political information among those who are disengaged from politics. If the problem is information inequality, there’s little point subsidising content that is only consumed by those who are already engaged.

As an economist, I’m naturally drawn towards using price signals rather than regulation to achieve any given aim. This is particularly the case in an area where there’s considerable controversy over defining what we mean by quality journalism. I’m not sure you can legislate good journalism any more than you can legislate good taste. But appropriate subsidies may be able to get us there.

Lastly, there’s the question of how progressive politicians should behave in a changing media environment. The changes that I’ve spoken about pose a particular challenge to progressives. Looking around the world, we’re living in an era when social democratic governments are particularly thin on the ground. I’m not sure it’s a coincidence that this is happening at a time when the media landscape is fragmenting. The changes afoot aren’t ideologically neutral: they’re particularly beneficial for populists and libertarians, and confronting for long-game reformers.

But for those of us who believe in progressive reform, it’s vital that we continue to talk about big ideas. In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell argues that you only get to the top of your profession after 10,000 hours of practice. A similar argument may apply to reform. Critical reforms like Medicare and universal superannuation, expanding university places and dropping the tariff barriers didn’t happen by themselves. They were the product of passionate and painstaking advocacy. My guess is that politicians who manage to implement major changes are invariably those who’ve chalked up at least 10,000 hours of advocacy.

Progressives also need to get better at linking the reforms of today with the events of the past. Too much reliance on talking points and ‘lines’ can win the battle, but lose the war. Humans are fundamentally storytelling creatures, and stories are a powerful way of persuading people about the importance of change. Reform isn’t about uprooting our history – it’s about allowing our values to endure in a changing world. It is about identifying the golden threads that run through our history.

Conclusion

George Megalogenis compares the changes today to the insecurity of the stagflation decade. Yet he argues that while the 1970s saw the media emerge as perhaps the only institution to play a constructive role, the media is today ‘an intrinsic part of the problem’.[50] Given the transformation that technology was already imposing on the media, the News of the World scandal could hardly have come at a worse time.

And yet there are good reasons to be optimistic. We can never return to the old way of doing things, and need to learn to manoeuvre our way in this new environment. The Fourth Estate is going through perhaps the biggest transformation in the past century. For highly engaged citizens, there’s never been a better time to be a news consumer. Here’s hoping we can eventually say the same for the rest of the population.


* I am grateful to Trudy McIntosh for outstanding research assistance; John Hirst for supplying me with some historical examples; and Michael Cooney, Louise Crossman, Stephen Dziedzic, Damien Hickman, Rick Kalowski, Matthew Ricketson and Nick Terrell (among others) for valuable comments on earlier drafts.

[1] Asked for their ideal dinner companion, Keating responded with conductor Rudolf Kempe (who died in 1976), while Hewson named Norman Gunston. Asked their epitaph, Keating responded ‘Si monumentum requiris, circumspice’ (Christopher Wren’s epitaph, which translates as ‘If you require a monument, look around you’). Hewson responded with ‘He tried his best’.

[2] For a beautifully-written (if somewhat inaccurate) account of the episode, see Henri Szeps, Wish I’d Said That, Phoenix Education, Sydney, 2012.

[3] For a seminal account of Queensland corruption in this era, see Scott Prasser, Rae Wear and John Nethercote (eds), Corruption and Reform: The Fitzgerald Vision, UQP, Brisbane, 1990

[4] For a plethora of other examples, see ABC Radio National, Media Report, 9 December 1999, available at www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/mediareport-1999/the-best-australian-journalism-of-the-20th-century/3566498.

[5] Roy Morgan, Image of Professions Survey 2012, Finding No. 4777. Journalists are rated highly ethical and honest by 12 percent of respondents; federal MPs by 10 percent. Incidentally, those in my former profession (university lecturer) are rated highly ethical and honest by 65 percent of respondents.

[6] comScore report, It’s a social world, October 2011

[7] See official lists of federal politicians on twitter from @AttheHouse and @AuSenate. Analysis on the tweets of the top 10 politicians during the 2010 election showed that over 50 percent of tweets were ‘broadcast messages.’ Jim McNamara, ‘Pre- and post-election 2010 online: What happened to the conversation?’, Communication, Politics, Culture, vol.44, no. 2

[8] Of my 3000 or so Twitter followers, I’d guess that less than half live in the Fraser electorate. Traditional campaigning, such as newsletters, public meetings, mobile offices and appearances on mainstream media still remain the bedrock of the interaction between politicians and voters.

[9] According to Ray Finkelstein, 2012, Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Media and Media Regulation, Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Canberra (hereafter the Finkelstein Report): ‘Australia’s newspaper industry is among the most concentrated in the developed world. An international collaborative research project … has generated data on the newspaper industry in 26 countries including Australia. One of the measures used is the proportion of daily newspaper circulation controlled by the leading firms in the industry. Australia is the only country in which the leading press company accounts for more than half of daily circulation … With a share of 86 per cent, Australia also ranks highest by a considerable margin when considering the share of the top two companies. The share of the top two companies exceeds 60 per cent in only six of the 26 countries’ (pp.59-60)

[10] For an excellent discussion of this issue, see Rodney Tiffin, 2012, ‘Spin Doctors, News Values and Public Interest – the Bermuda Triangle of Policy Debate’ in Matthew Ricketson (ed), Australian Journalism Today, Palgrave, Melbourne (as an aside, Tiffin was very tolerant of my poor class attendance while I was an editor of Honi Soit).

[11] Essential Media poll, November 2011, cited in the Finkelstein Report, p.87

[12] Tony Blair, ‘The Prime Minister’s Reuters Speech on Public Life’, 12 June 2007.

[13] Had space permitted, I would have explored the difference between attack commentary and constructive opinion pieces. For simplicity, I have ignored that distinction here.

[14] Having written a couple of hundred opinion pieces, one might reasonably ask whether I ought to desist, if I believe that too much opinion is a problem. While I’d prefer to see a fall in the opinion/news ratio, I’m  aware that my opinion pieces are only displacing those of other people, rather than adding to the sum total of published opinion in Australia.

[15] Lachlan Harris, Keynote address at Public Relations Institute of Australia’s annual conference, as quoted at ‘Lachlan Harris: Rise of the opinion cycle makes Andrew Bolt the most influential man in media’, mumbrella, http://mumbrella.com.au/opinion-cycle-lachlan-harris-andrew-bolt-pr-62272

[16] Calculations based on the listing of the Press Gallery names in Parliament House Communications Directory from 1990, August 2000, 2010.

[17] One consequence of the rise of opinion has been an increase in the weight accorded to special interest groups.

[18] Martin McKenzie-Murray, ‘Democracy Running Low on Ink’, Sydney Morning Herald, 14 June 2012.

[19] The exceptions were the ABC (which was right-leaning on one measure) and the Age (which was left-leaning on another measure). See Joshua Gans and Andrew Leigh, ‘Multiple Measures of Media Slant’, Economic Record, Volume 88, Issue 280, pages 127–147, March 2012

[20] For good discussions of this issue, see Paul Starr, ‘Governing in the age of Fox News’, The Atlantic, 2010  http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/01/governing-in-the-age-of-fox-news/7838/; Alan S. Gerber, Gregory A. Huber, David Doherty, Conor M. Dowling, ‘ Personality Traits and the Consumption of Political Information’, American Politics Research; Eszter Hargittai, Jason Gallo, Matthew Kane, ‘Cross-Ideological Discussions among Conservative and Liberal Bloggers’, Public Choice, (2008) Vol 134, No.1/2,

[21] Both Cohen and Haidt are quoted in Ezra Klein, ‘Unpopular Mandate’, New Yorker, 25 June 2012, pp.30-33.

[22] Pew Research Centre, ‘Press Widely Criticized, But Trusted More than Other Information Sources’, September 2011, as accessed at http://www.people-press.org/2011/09/22/press-widely-criticized-but-trusted-more-than-other-institutions/?src=prc-headline

[23] For two studies providing causal evidence that slanted media can change electoral outcomes, see Gerber, Alan S., Dean Karlan, and Daniel Bergan. 2009. “Does the Media Matter? A Field Experiment Measuring the Effect of Newspapers on Voting Behavior and Political Opinions.” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 1(2): 35–52; Stefano DellaVigna and Ethan Kaplan, ‘The Fox News Effect: Media Bias and Voting’ Quarterly Journal of Economics (2007) 122 (3): 1187-1234

[24] Annabel Crabb, ‘An audience, an audience, my kingdom for an audience’, 19 Oct 2011, The Drum, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-10-19/crabb-an-audience-my-kingdom-for-an-audience/3578344

[25] Laura Tingle, Great Expectations: Government, Entitlement and an Angry Nation, Quarterly Essay 46, Black Inc, Melbourne, 2012

[26] A more comprehensive list of Keating insults has even earned its own website. See http://www.webcity.com.au/keating/

[27] To take a twentieth-century US example, New York Post editor Steve Dunleavy ran a campaign against gay rights, apparently even ordering a reporter in the 1980s to write that AIDS could be transmitted by kissing: ‘Let’s not be too technical mate – it’s a good yarn.’ David Marr, ‘The Politics of News (Review of David McKnight’s Rupert Murdoch: An Investigation of Political Power)’, The Monthly, February 2012, pp.62-63.

[28] The Abbott example is drawn from Nicholas Gruen, ‘Beyond Vox Pop Democracy’, in Helen Sykes (ed), More or Less: Democracy and the New Media, Future Leaders, 2012. For a thoughtful discussion of the role of reporters in challenging assertions by public figures, see Arthur Brisbane, ‘Should the Times be a Truth Vigilante?’, Public Editor’s Journal, New York Times, 12 January 2012. For some odd reason, the challenge of correcting factual errors in Australia reminds me of the line from Wodehouse’s Psmith, Journalist: ‘Cosy moments cannot be muzzled’.

[29] Andrew Leigh, Disconnected, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2010.

[30] Kate G. Niederhoffer and James W. Pennebaker (2002), ‘Linguistic Style Matching in Social Interaction’ Journal of Language and Social Psychology 21: 337-360, cited in John Freeman (2009) Shrinking the World: The 4000-Year Story of How Email Came to Rule Our Lives, Text Publishing, Melbourne, p.154

[31] George Megalogenis, The Australian Moment, Penguin, Sydney, 2012, p.363

[32] Tony Blair, ‘The Prime Minister’s Reuters Speech on Public Life’, 12 June 2007.

[33] Kevin Arceneaux, ‘Cognitive Biases and the Strength of Political Argument’, American Journal of Political Science, (2012) Vol. 56, Iss. 2.

[34] Jeremy Peters, ‘Latest Word on the Trail? I Take It Back’, New York Times, 15 July 2012.

[35] Indeed, you can even use social media to do it, like the Sunday Telegraph journalist who put a message on the Source Bottle website in January: ‘I need a gorgeous Sydney family who is outraged at the fact their electricity bill has skyrocketed… Ideally not eastern suburbs’.

[36] Bruce Chapman and Kiatanantha Lounkaew, ‘How many jobs is 23,510, really?’, Technical Brief No. 9, June 2011, The Australia Institute.

[37] Murray Goot, ‘To the Second Decimal Point: How the polls vied to predict the national vote, monitor the marginals and second-guess the Senate’, in Marian Simms and John Wanna (eds), Julia 2010: The Caretaker Election, ANU E-Books, Canberra, 2011.

[38] My own work, with Justin Wolfers, finds that polls conducted a year before an election have average errors of around 4 percentage points. Justin Wolfers and Andrew Leigh, ‘Three Tools for Forecasting Federal Elections: Lessons from 2001’ (2002) Australian Journal of Political Science 37(2): 223-40

[39] Andrew Leigh and Justin Wolfers, ‘Competing Approaches to Forecasting Elections: Economic Models, Opinion Polling and Prediction Markets’ (2006) Economic Record, 82(258): 325-340

[40] The Australian Journalists’ Association Code of Ethics begins “Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis.”

[41] For example, in the 1983 election, Paul Keating was discussing the Accord to John Laws, and said ‘I’m not sure we can make it work but we’re going to give it a good shot.’ He was promptly pilloried by then Prime Minister Fraser for his ‘extraordinary’ admission. See Anne Summers, Gamble for Power, Nelson, Sydney, 1983, pp.162-163.

[42] Lindsay Tanner, Sideshow: Dumbing down democracy, Scribe Publications, Melbourne, 2011, p.7

[43] One of the best treatments of these issues is Leigh Sales, 2010, On Doubt, Melbourne University Publishing, Melbourne. See also Andrew Leigh, ‘Progress rarely plane sailing but dare to do it anyway’, The Australian, 25 July 2012.

[44] Andrew Leigh, Disconnected, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2010. By comparison, a landmark study of Sydney adolescents in the 1950s found that 88 percent read a newspaper each day: W.F. Connell, E.P Francis and Elizabeth Skilbeck, 1959, Growing up in an Australian City: A Study of Adolescents in Sydney, ACER, Melbourne, p.141.

[45] The only Australian papers to have a readers’ editor are the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun-Herald, who share readers’ editor Judy Prisk.

[46] For an excellent discussion of the ongoing value of long-form journalism, from Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson to Margaret Simons and David Marr, see Matthew Ricketson, 2012, ‘The value of long-form journalism in a short-form world’, in Matthew Ricketson (ed), Australian Journalism Today, Palgrave, Melbourne.

[47] The Finkelstein Report notes that newspaper sales per 100 people were 38.6 in 1947, 32.1 in 1967, 28.8 in 1977, 21.9 in 1987, 14.1  in 1996, 13.0 in 2000 and 9.7 in 2011.

[48] For a detailed summary of subsidies to the news media in Australia and other developed countries, see Annexure K of the Finkelstein Report. Chapter 12 of the Finkelstein Report discusses the threats to accountability and democracy posed by a decline in quality journalism.

[49] Malcolm Turnbull, 2012, ‘Politics, Journalism and the 24/7 News Cycle’ in Helen Sykes (ed), More or Less: Democracy and New Media, Future Leaders, Sydney. In a similar vein, Andrew Crook argues that tax deductibility could encourage the rise of more investigative journalism, though antipodean equivalents of the US ProPublica: Andrew Crook, ‘The case to make donations to non-profit media tax deductible’, Crikey, 11 July 2012.

[50] George Megalogenis, The Australian Moment, Penguin, Sydney, 2012, p.361

Media coverage: Canberra Times, Age, AAP, Australian (x2). See also a cut-down version in the Drum, and a discussion on ABC24 and the ABC’s Media Report program.

7 Comments

  1. Murray May says:

    A stimulating talk with some useful insights on the current state of play in the media, particularly the competitive nature of the 24/7 news cycle, shallowness and the need for more critical analysis, and aggression more in evidence on the blog scene and elsewhere. How to improve things? Not so sure twitter will do it. Preserving the ABC is critical.

  2. james walker says:

    A good sum up of the problem. However, most of today’s voters were also voters during the Keating era – people haven’t changed as much as the media claims, and I know many of us desire a return to more informative journalism (and get a regular barrage of complaints from friends on the subject). Is it possible to assist the handful of remaining journalists (as opposed to commentators) by giving them first refusal for interviews etc?

    (Oh, must point out that while the Left insists that the ABC is evenhanded, and the Right that the ABC is biased, very few people seem interested in what those of us in Centre think…probably because we can’t be accused of letting our own biases get in the way! Which is why ABC viewer share is so poor, of course).

  3. [...] September 2010 « The Naked Truth? Media and Politics in the Digital Age [...]

  4. ric lucas says:

    Maybe a better approach is to subsidise individual journalists who meet suitable criteria. The winner of an annual contest could qualify for the subsidy…

    There would be more civility if defamation laws required truth and public benefit, not just truth alone. And it should be much easier to trace anonymous comment, by making ISP’s disclose identity on receipt of an appropriate notice without the issuing of a subpoena.

  5. [...] Andrew Leigh: The naked truth? Media and politics in the digital age [...]

  6. [...] Making a speech to University of Canberra students this week Leigh said, “In effect, technology has widened the information gap between the most-informed and least-informed members of society.” [...]

  7. John says:

    When will economists step up and talk about the fact that we have a debt based monetary system? I hope someone will.